New media, in particular the internet and online games, offer children and young people numerous opportunities to learn and socialise, but can also present risks to their safety by exposing them to potentially harmful and inappropriate material. The Byron Review, commissioned by the UK government and published on 27 April 2008, affords a detailed appraisal of the critical issues to be considered in order to better tackle the risks involved with the online world.
Concerns have been raised in particular over content (e.g. violence and other potentially inappropriate material), contact (e.g. giving away personal details) and inappropriate conduct of children themselves and/or other unknown players (e.g. the use of racist, sexist or other abusive or threatening comments or bad language).
Although children may feel increasingly confident with new technology, the view expressed in the Review is that they are still in the process of developing crucial evaluation skills and need the help of adults to develop the necessary maturity and awareness in order to identify, assess and manage online risks appropriately.
The need for a child-centred approach
In order to protect children and young people more effectively from the risks involved with internet, video and online gaming, the Review emphasises the need for a ‘child-centred approach’, taking into account children’s age and gender, but also their individual online and gaming experiences.
Child safety on the internet - three strategic objectives
The Review stresses that efforts should be made to:
reduce the availability of harmful and inappropriate material on the most popular sites;
limit children’s access to harmful and inappropriate material, through efforts by the industry (e.g. developing better parental control software) but also parents (e.g. setting up parental control software properly);
build children’s resilience to harmful and inappropriate material.
In order to achieve these three objectives, the Review recommends the creation of a ‘UK Council on Child Internet Safety’ which would lead a two-strand strategy based on:
better regulation (through the development by the relevant industries of independently monitored voluntary codes of practice), and
better information and education about e-safety: this strategy should include two lines of activity:
a properly funded public information and awareness campaign on child internet safety to change behaviour, led by government (this campaign should be based on blanket and targeted messages through a wide range of media channels and involving children and young people themselves);
sustainable education and children’s services initiatives to enable children and parents to improve their e-safety skills, through the introduction of a new curriculum and ExtendedSchool services. The Review stresses that the role of schools and children’s services is fundamental to the success of this strategy, and that it is paramount that Ofsted should hold schools to account.
The Report also recommends that the Council should:
appoint an advisory group, with expertise in technology and child development;
research how the law relating to harmful and inappropriate material could be effectively clarified and investigate suitable enforcement responses.
Online games provide children and young people with the opportunity to meet new people and improve their managerial and social skills. They have also become a crucial part of the lives of children with disabilities or accessibility needs. However, the risks involved with online gaming mirror the risks of the internet generally. Although steps are already being taken to manage the risks of online gaming (including labelling and age-rating of online games, restricting access through age verification systems), the Review makes a number of recommendations to better address the risks of online gaming:
ensure close cooperation between BBFC and PEGI in order to establish a single set of standards managing the risks of online gaming;
ensure that where games allow online chatting or messaging, this should be taken into account when classifying and moderating;
an online gaming sub-group should be convened by the Council to analyse good practice in child safety for online gaming and to consider the following eight critical issues:
Awareness raising (notably of online classification, risks of online gaming and how to reduce those risks);
Age verification (to be encouraged in particular for games rated 12+ and over);
Informing players of risks (to ensure players do not share their personal details online);
Player responsibility (encouraging good behaviour through awards);
Reporting (encouraging players to report inappropriate behaviour);
Excessive use (encouraging breaks, use of on-screen timers and introduction of the concept of tiredness of characters);
Monitoring of online safety (the sub-group should ensure that breaches of codes are dealt with appropriately);
Mobile gaming (in the light of the anticipated success of mobile gaming, mobile operators and representatives of mobile entertainment should be represented on the sub-group).
Internet and online gaming can be beneficial to children in many ways, and should therefore remain used and valued. However, in a digital world where children’s competencies are growing and where their vulnerabilities are changing, there is a pressing need for adults to adapt the nature of their approach and interventions. There is also a need to obtain practical solutions to the difficulty of verifying the age of children online. The Byron Review will provide for a much needed debate with the industry, government and consumers about the courses of action necessary to better tackle the safety challenges faced by children in the online world today.